REPRISE AND UPDATE: Afghanistan faces famine, economic collapse as international community poses conditions for aid

January 18, 2022


Pamela Constable, “Afghanistan desperately needs aid. One technocrat from the former government is key to the Taliban’s efforts,” Washington Post, January 18, 2022 (4:00 a.m. EST).

January 15, 2022

The factors blocking humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan described in the following article of September 15, 2021, have unfortunately resulted in the disastrous conditions predicted at that time.

We are faced with a deadlock that will result is massive deaths and stunted development from famine in a population of nearly 40 million people.

Joe Biden, in one of the most craven political decisions in modern times, withdrew residual American forces from Afghanistan in full knowledge of these likely results. The United States will bear the shame and moral responsibility for this catastrophic decision for decades if not generations.

Yet we are where we are. And where we are is described succinctly and cogently in an Editorial in the leading international newspaper El Païs (Spain):


Editorial, “Responsabilidad de proteger; La comunidad internacional está obligada a ocuparse de los 40 millones de afganos que están hoy al borde del abismo,” El País, el 14 de enero 2021 (21:34, Actualizado: 15 ENE 2022 – 03:58 EST).

Original article
published September 15, 2021


1) Jacques Follorou, “l’on n’a plus à manger, on va finir par mourir de farm’: à Kaboul, le désespoir et la nmisère,” Le Monde, le 15 septembre 2021 (11h48, mis à jour à 16h14).

2) Daniel Boffey (Strasbourg), “EU has no choice but to engage with Taliban, says foreign policy chief; Josep Borrell tells MEPs that EU can only influence future developments by engaging with new Afghan regime,” The Guardian, September 14, 2021 (18.55 BST).

3) Ãngeles Espinosa (Kabul), “El mercado que surgió de la desesperanza en Kabul; La tragedia humana y económica que afronta Afganistán se refleja en un rastro surgido en la capital donde muchos venden sus bienes más básicos para poder comer, El País, el 15 de setiembre 2021 (4:44 CET).

Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, hit the nail on the head when he said, “Maybe it’s a pure oxymoron to talk about human rights but this is what we have to ask them (the Taliban).”

The EU is setting conditions on its level of engagement with the Taliban, however, including the protection of human rights.

“Maybe it’s a pure oxymoron to talk about human rights but this is what we have to ask them,” Borrell said. “To have any chance of influencing events, we have no other option but to engage with the Taliban … engaging means talking, discussing and agreeing when possible.

It is an oxymoron, but at least as a starting point.


“Taliban religious beliefs pose huge obstacle to modernization, respect for human rights including women’s rights,” The Trenchant Observer, September 8, 2021.

The international community needs to adopt a highly flexible approach to dealing with the new Taliban government, taking into consideration that it is now dominated by the most ruthless hardline factions.

Western governments and international actors, including humanitarian assistance agencies and other international actors, need to adopt a two-tiered approach.

First, they should supply food and other humanitarian assistance, including funds to prevent the collapse of the healthcare system, without any conditions.

That’s right. They should not condition the supply of this assistance on respect for women’s rights and other human rights. Whether this aid should flow if the Taliban engage in a broad pattern of war crimes and crimes against humanity, e.g., by hunting down and executing former Afghan army, intelligence or other officials, or killing women and journalists who worked for organizations whose work they disapproved of, is a hard question. Answers to it may depend on domestic politics in different donor countries.

The key point is that the international community should not deny to the people of Afghanistan–the individual life-and-blood human beings–the aid they need to survive, on the theory that withholding aid will make the Taliban respect human rights. For examples of the challenges of survival these human beings face, see Espinosa and Follorou, above.

This theory won’t work for three reasons.

First, it assumes the Taliban is a single unitary actor, acting like a single rational, calculating mind. This is known as “the rational actor” fallacy. In fact, the Taliban is made up of competing leaders and factions, and any “decision” by the government will be the product of the interplay of these leaders and forces. Any implementation of such a “decision” will be the ptoduct of the further interplay of these forces and leaders.


“The “Rational Actor” Fallacy and Stopping Syria’s Atrocities—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #8 (March 9)”, The Trenchant Observer, March 12, 2012.

Second, as Josep Borrell suggests, the concept of human rights is totally foreign to the religious ideology of the Taliban. So, even if the Taliban were a single rational actor, which it is not, it would not be likely to sacrifice fundamental religious beliefs (e.g., the roles of women) in exchange for humanitarian and other aid flows.

Third, the very confrontation between the international community and the Taliban over respect for human rights could further weaken the position within the Taliban of the more “moderate” faction led by Mollah Baradar, which has just been shunted aside by the Haqqani Network hardline faction.

Since this zero sum game-theory approach is not likely to work, and instead contribute to an immense human catastrophe, a better approach would be to offer a second tier or level of financial and other support that is conditioned on Taliban respect for human rights and in particular women’s rights, in addition to Taliban compliance with international law norms regarding war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In short, help the human beings in Afghanistan survive, while offering a carrot to the Taliban in the form of additional aid provided they respect fundamental human rights.

The Trenchant Observer

The Trenchant Observer has been following Afghanistan closely since 2005, when he worked in Kabul as the Team Leader of group of six lawyers charged with advising the government on modernizing its criminal justice process to better meet international human rights standards.

The Trenchant Observer is an international lawyer with a historian’s eye.  A former Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, where he received the degree of Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law (S.J.D.), he is also a summa cum laude graduate of Stanford University, where as an undergraduate he received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the Best Senior Honors Thesis in History.

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

1 Comment on "REPRISE AND UPDATE: Afghanistan faces famine, economic collapse as international community poses conditions for aid"

  1. Michael Mauldin | January 18, 2022 at 7:28 am |

    The people we want to help most are the least likely to recieve any help. Solders eat first, then men then friends and Taliban supporters. Having less people to govern is easier on principle.

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